I studied Comparative Religion at Columbia University as an undergraduate but left the institution believing that the religions of the world—even the religions of the West—had little in common. Yes, there is the concept of reincarnation in Lurianic Kabbalah and Zen Buddhism. But they are the product of two distinct cultures and histories. The English translation of “gilgul nefashot” and “karma” gives little respect to the fact that these two notions of reincarnation are radically different. The differences are lost in translation.
The search for an “Abrahamic Religion” is also futile. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share texts, stories, and history but are radically different. It matters little that Abraham was the father of Isaac and Ishmael and that, in Christian theology, he had no need for Law but only Faith. The best example of the differences is from the recent Torah portion that details the story of the binding of Isaac.
Among medieval Jews along the Rhineland, during the slaughter and forced conversion of the First Crusade in 1096, Abraham actually slaughters Isaac on the altar and then God resurrects the boy. Why would the Rhineland scholars deviate from a text in which Abraham does not slaughter Isaac? The Jews of Worms, Cologne and Speyer were choosing to die and kill their children in martyrdom. They wanted to believe that their pious deaths would be rewarded. Some killed their own children and wanted to believe that in the messianic era their sons and daughters would be resurrected. This was a uniquely Jewish way of interpreting the story of the binding of Isaac.
Christian theology stands in stark contrast to the traditional Jewish interpretation of the Rhineland Jewish martyrs. Abraham’s failure to sacrifice Isaac is fulfilled, in Christian eyes, with God’s sacrifice and resurrection of his beloved son, Jesus. The Christian understanding of the Hebrew Bible as the “Old Testament”—the Hebrew scriptures, especially prophecy, are the harbingers of the coming of Jesus as a savior messiah—is a radical departure from the traditional Jewish interpretation of the Bible as the story of the covenant between God and His chosen people Israel. Again, is the really Comparative Religion? There seems to be much less in common and radically different ways of reading the Hebrew Bible.
In Islam, there was a debate among early scholars whether the son spared from sacrifice on the altar was Isaac or Ishmael. In fact, the Muslim understanding of Ishmael as the father of the Arabs—found in the Hebrew Bible—does not negate the Jewish understanding of Isaac as the chosen son of Abraham to fulfill God’s promise that he was destined to be a patriarch of the Jewish people—not Ishmael as the purveyor of God’s promise. The Abraham of the Quran is the first Muslim and his monotheism is intense in that text. The Abraham of the Hebrew Bible is the father of a great nation and his story is that of a family saga, God’s chosen family to fulfill His promise. The differences in Jewish, Christian and Muslim understandings of Abraham stand in opposition to one another.
So much for a generic “Abrahamic Religion” and religious tradition. Ecumenical dialogue is not an exercise in futility. But why deny that we can respect each other—and at the same time, acknowledge the different context and history of each faith community?